Sunburned Scientists

March 23, 2018

We are all sunburned. Grace, Mary, and Juliette all suffered from bikini-induced, ornately sun-patterned backs. Christina chose to not put on any sun screen, revealing her naked shoulders to the whims of a the Costa Rican sun. Rose, on the other hand, applied liberal amounts of SPF 30, which had unfortunately expired in 2016. She thought that Christina had slathered it onto her back, but was disappointed to discover a nasty burn on her supposedly protected skin. Finally, Liam, who had vowed to never see the a burn again after a nasty experience in 2010, suffered elbow, top of foot, and neck burns.

Despite the slight discomfort, our final day began like any other. We woke up in the all-too-sticky heat to the now familiar sounds of nature. The plan was to collect data for our independent studies. After a 7:30 breakfast and a pep-talk/debrief from Cathy, our individual groups were ready to begin collecting data. The range of ecological inquiries was vast. One group set out to discover how abiotic factors predict crawfish abundance in a rainforest stream. Another, Christina’s group, compared forest structure (as measured by the distribution of tree DBH — diameter at breast height) in ephemeral vs permanent streams. The final group, Rose’s, counted epiphytes (air plants) at the edge of the forest and the interior of the forest. All groups encountered difficulties with their original protocol, amending them and ironing out the kinks as they worked in the field.

Tender skinned, and slightly disgruntled, Rose trudged up the road with her three other group mates to set up belt transacts and to search the canopy with binoculars for epiphytes. Juliette truly carried the group. Opting to pick her way through the interior of the canopy, she fought off thorny vines and steep slopes to set up transects.

Initially bleary-eyed, Christina was soon roused by a couple snake sightings by Isa and Grace. Armed with Theo’s machete, Isa’s clapping, Grace’s music, and some out of time singing, Christina’s group accomplished their tasks. Finishing their data collection with some time to spare, they basked in the pre-noon sun, enjoying the beautiful scenery of a previously untraversed part of the river.

While at first, the going was tough, after a long morning of working together, all groups finished their work, satisfied and ready for the last lunch cooked by Marianella.

After lunch, we had time to pack and to gather our wits and data before setting out to the beach town of Dominical. There, some students braver than others chose to face the late afternoon sun on the beach. Others wandered the store fronts, looking for keepsakes to bring home to their loved ones. Finally, the group gathered to enjoy our last dinner together. Tomorrow we depart at 8:30 to catch a 3 pm flight home. With bittersweet feelings in our hearts we say “goodbye” to Firestone and “hello” to New York.

~Rose and Christina

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Peanut Butter Machete

March 22, 2018

Hello faithful followers of the Bardian blog!

Today’s adventures included sixty species of orchids, twenty-nine butterflies, nine monkeys, five sleepy sloths, and one anteater. The day began with an extra hour of sleep and a simple breakfast before taking off to the Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge in two taxis. As per usual, it was a sunny and sweaty morning, and we were a little tired but still excited for the events of the day. Upon arrival to Hacienda Baru, we awaited our tour guide before starting our walk through the lovely orchid garden. As we strolled through the lush vegetation, our knowledgeable guide imparted a variety of facts to us about orchids.

Costa Rica has approximately fifteen hundred species of orchids, while Hacienda Baru has fifty to sixty species. While the United States only has terrestrial orchids, Costa Rica has epiphytic, semi-epiphytic, and terrestrial orchids. We were struck by the vast variety and differing appearances of the orchids. We were especially interested in vanilla, which is semi-epiphytic. It takes a year to refine the vanilla beans after pollination. In the garden, we were also allowed to sample cocoa beans, which smelled like brownies and tasted like very bitter dark chocolate.

After leaving the orchid garden, we were graced with the presence of a beautiful sloth and spent an unprecedented amount of time staring at it through binoculars and taking pictures. Sloths are, after all, a group favorite.

Then a few paces down the same road we discovered nine white-faced capuchin monkeys hanging out in the trees! They were face down with all four legs hanging over the branches. There was one especially adorable couple cuddling. Much to our great excitement, we spotted about four more sloths lazing around in the trees, and because we had a time constraint and spent so much time staring at said sloths, we were forced to take a shortcut back. Our tour ended eventfully when we spotted an anteater, something even Cathy, who sadly had to stay back to do paperwork, was jealous about.

Next we ventured down the road to a private beach and satisfied our hunger with some sandwiches, employing a machete to spread peanut butter to bread before frolicking onto the long stretch of sand that sat before the crashing waves of the Pacific. The sun was beating hot on our backs as we made sandcastles, waded in the strong tides of the blue waters, and had some well-deserved relaxation before heading back to Firestone where we had a wonderful lunch of rice, beans, salad, fresh pineapple and perfectly seasoned mashed potatoes.

After lunch and a brief break, the class broke into two separate groups to investigate the progress of our butterfly traps before dismantling them. One group went out to the waterfall, discovering a few specimens of Archaeoprepona demophon centralsi in a couple different traps.

The other group travelled up the hill, surviving the roller coaster of a car ride. It was all going perfectly bumpy until we reached a tree in the road, but Cathy, our amazing, badass professor, persevered and used what was once a peanut butter machete to chop down the tree and save us from walking up the treacherous path. Because of her resourcefulness, we were able to discover an abundance of butterflies waiting in the traps.

For dinner we had a delicious mixture of rice, beans, and chicken. Dessert was a treat with ice-cream brought by a group of students who made a snack run. Then we all met in small groups with Cathy to finalize our independent projects for tomorrow. We are currently all sitting in the lab, talking and sharing stories about Bard, and it is a perfectly sweet ending to a sloth-filled day.

Signing off,

Mary and Gracie

“Good Job, Butterfliers”

March 21, 2018

It all started with a calm and soothing reflection on our time here thus far. We
gathered in a circle and talked about our challenges and our highlights since we’ve
been at Firestone. It is definitely a challenge for many of us here in the heat, just as
we battled with the snowy storms up in the Hudson.  However, the happiest and
best memories made us laugh in our time of reflection. Some said monkeys, the
familiar smells of Costa Rica (someone who had previously visited), the delicious
rice and beans, the deceptive night hawk, the bumpy rides with our wonderful
driver Cathy, and the fresh and natural scents that move through the air as we take
on our adventures.

We then ventured into the forest near the waterfall to check our leaves that we had
left overnight in Ziploc bags. This experiment was done to see how direct sunlight
and location on the tree affects the amount of water that leaves transpire
throughout the day. The leaves were left out for about 48 hours: ¼ of the leaves in
direct sunlight transpired more water than the remaining leaves in shaded areas.
Why only ¼? Our fellow classmate Liam supposed,  “It is unlikely for leaves to
transpire in this humid environment because the air is so saturated. Had we done
this experiment at Bard, then we might’ve found more transpired water in the
Ziplocs.”  Theo added, “ This might be because the leaves at Firestone naturally
produce a waxy coating to retain the water.” Also since we know that it is the dry
season here in Costa Rica, we suspect that this waxy coating must have impacted
our results as  the drier the atmosphere, the larger the driving force for water
movement out of the plant, increasing the rate of transpiration.

After collecting our leaves, we governed ourselves attending to three tasks
assigned by Cathy for almost three hours while she and our TA Sarah attended to
some other duties in the field.  It was the calmest day we’ve had, taking
temperature and humidity throughout different times of the day to figure out how
temperature and humidity changes in the forest/ shaded areas vs. the areas exposed
to direct sunlight, and examining the magnitude of change.  Switching gears we
split into groups to discuss ideas for our independent studies that we will conduct
on Friday.

Around 12:00pm we were all ready and on time for our lunch prepared by our
wonderful chef.  She prepared us some type of Costa Rican squash with corn and
rice, a healthy salad on the side and some freshly cut pineapples and watermelon
slices. Our group has probably gone through about six Lizano bottles (a Costa
Rican sauce)! After lunch we enjoyed freshly cut coconuts and relaxed until we went out to retrieved our butterflies from the traps. We found multiple different
species of butterflies in including Archaeoprepona demophon centralis, Caligo
atreus dionysos, Cissia Sp, Colobura dirce, and Hamadryas feronia farinulenta.
The colors and textures of their beautiful wings were truly an amazing sight.
Along with so many species, two of our adventurers conquered their fears: Dani her fear of bugs by holding and releasing some butterflies from our traps, and
Isa made it up and down the rocky road that leads to the top of the mountain
without tossing any of her meals.

To end such a beautiful and calm day on such a pretty and diverse land, we took a
night hike for about two hours. It was pretty slow but very enticing. We saw
Gladiator frogs, a white iguana, a bright red jumpy poisonous dart frog, a cat-eyed
snake, tree frogs, a tarantula, two sly raccoons, a tiny scorpion, a wild chicken(?),
multiple different spider species and a calm sloth to complete our day.
About ten butterfliy species AND A SLOTH? Our day could not have been better!

Signing off,
Dani and Theo

 

Everything but Butterflies

March 20, 2018

Our day started with making a delicious smoothie… for butterflies! In case you didn’t know, a butterfly’s favorite smoothie consists of smashed up banana, pineapple, papaya, and beer. While some of us were preparing this for the butterflies, our fellow adventurer Theo learned how to sharpen dull machetes with some of our lovely hosts. When the smoothie making was complete, we broke into groups and headed out to set up butterfly traps in varying habitats around the field station.

Here is a little step by step to set up a butterfly trap: (1) Tie a carabineer to rope and pray to the ecology gods that it will catch on the branch you are hoping to throw it over. (2) After successfully “finagling” the rope over the intended branch (or settling for any branch you can get!) detach the carabineer and tie the top of the trap to the rope. (3) Place a rain fly over the trap to protect the butterflies in case it rains. (4) Ants tend to also be interested in our butterfly bait, and surprisingly, they can actually kill the butterflies themselves.  To counteract this, apply Tanglefoot (a sticky paste that brings ants to an equally sticky end) to the rope holding your trap. (5) Put a bowl of butterfly smoothie bait on the base of the trap. (6) Hoist up your trap and hope for the best!

While setting up our traps, one group had a chance encounter with some local furry inhabitants. While struggling to throw rope over a branch, we heard some loud rustling in the forest above us, and before we knew it, two coatis raced across the path directly in front of us!

Our goal was to be able to use the mark-recapture method we learned about in class. In this case, this consists of capturing a butterfly and marking its wing with a Sharpie, then releasing it. After some time, we check the traps again and record butterflies that have already been marked and new ones that have found their way into our traps. From this method, we are able to estimate population size and some basic measures of diversity. Because of butterflies’ distinctive wing patterns and colors, they are fairly easily identifiable with a basic morphology guide. After the traps were up for several hours today, we were disappointed when we checked them and found them butterfly-less; however, we are hopeful some will be drawn to the expertly crafted smoothie we prepared for them by the time we check again tomorrow.

While we waited for our traps to fill after setting them up, we took a break from trekking around the rainforest to look at some of our data from yesterday on leafcutter ants. The biomass we collected from the ants had been drying in an oven overnight, so we took it out and weighed it by group. Then we had a brainstorming session on the best way to represent our data. After recording it in Excel, Cathy led us through the steps to create a basic mathematical model that would allow us to estimate the total biomass removed by leafcutter ants in the Firestone preserve in one year. We used data from a previous study that estimated 101 ant mounds on the property. This combined with the data we collected allowed us to predict that leafcutter ants may be removing around 10,750 kg of biomass per year!

Some of us ended the day with a bumpy trip in the back of Cathy’s rental car to the top of the field station, with an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet. On the way, we encountered an unexpected form of wildlife: a domestic horse. It trotted in front of us for several hundred meters, and then disappeared into the rainforest. Once there, we checked the last 6 butterfly traps (finding them empty, of course). Driving along the top, were surprised to see several peccary leap in front of the car as they ran downhill.

We ended our excursion with a tranquil view of the hills rolling down to the Pacific Ocean, and the persistent call of an unidentified bird in the trees above us.

Signing off,

  Sarah and Juliette

 

Sleep like a Nighthawk

19 March 2018

Our morning started abruptly as we hear one of our classmates screeching.  We soon found out that a large female Golden Orb Weaver created a beautiful golden web around the corner from the fieldhouse restrooms.  We knew an exciting day was in store for us this Monday.

We started off on the trail with camera traps on our backs to set up along the way.  We wanted to know what the rainforest held while we weren’t looking. Students picked locations which interested them the most, including the waterfall, the bamboo, and even behind our dormitories.  Who knows, maybe we’ll even see a puma? On Thursday, all our questions will be answered when we collect the cameras.

Cathy, our wondrous rainforest leader, threw another scientific question our way, “What sweats?”  She guided us through the process of transpiration, which is when plants lose water as they photosynthesize. Essentially, the plants are sweating, and we wanted to know just how much.  To answer this question, we placed Ziploc bags over leaves connected to the branches in sunny and shady areas. To determine how much transpiration occurs in different species, we tried to find shady and sunny areas on each tree, making sure that two leaves were enclosed per tree.  Again, the answers to our transpiration questions will be answered later this week.

We finally reached the top of the reserve where we began our next study. Throughout the last two days we’ve been in awe of the clearly defined leaf-cutter ant paths. We sat down in groups to formulate a study to answer how much biomass is harvested per year by leaf-cutter ants at Firestone. A fact that a student read about in an ecology field book was that all the worker ants that carried the leaves on their backs were all daughters of the queen ant. We collaboratively configured a study where we dispersed ourselves across the top of the forest to search for leaf-cutter trails to observe. Each group, for ten minutes, used tweezers to physically separate and collect the leaves from the ants. This was harder than we expected! The ants are feisty and did not want to remove themselves from their hard work. We put the biomass in a paper bag and later put them in the oven to dry.

We trotted down the trail, sporadically stopping to appreciate our setting around us. A group of students stopped at the sleepy night hawk by a familiar tree. The bird was cute, and quaint as the day before…eerily so. People began to wonder if the bird was dead. Quickly, those rumors were dispelled. Despite its deadly allure, a student accidentally awoke the bird attempting to take a picture. The bird opened its sleepy eyes, shrugged, and went back to sleep.

After lunch we did more leaf-cutter ant experiments and another study involving the fungi inside leaves. As we made our way back into the forest, Isa heard leaves rustling as they were falling on Theo’s head. She looked up and to Isa’s surprise, she saw a white-faced capuchin monkey looking back at her, one of the most sought-after animal we were hoping to see this week. After all the wonderful experiments we did today, students chose to either take a refreshing dive at the waterfall or go for a fruit run in the local town of Dominical. The rest of the night was filled with laughter and practical jokes from students and wildlife among us. We will sleep like night hawks in our bunks tonight after another incredible jungle adventure here at Firestone.

Sincerely your jungle gals,

Cameron and Isa

 

Overs and Unders

March 18, 2018

12 Bard students, 16+ hours of travel, approx. 4,150 miles traveled and the adventure has just begun. Our first full day here at the Firestone Ecological Field Station has come to a close. Under-slept and overheated, we hiked up and into the jungle. We started the day early, as in 6AM early, because the time difference still had us slightly confused (it’s two hours earlier here in Dominical). Breakfast was self-serve, featuring pineapple, cereal, coffee, and juice. Pitzer College students and a professor met up with us before we started our hike towards the “yoga studio”, dubbed for its shape and scenic location.  The hike started off with a very steep hill made up of rocks and roots. Everywhere we looked greens and yellows bursted with life, and we saw several blue morpho butterflies and a sleeping nighthawk. The blue morpho butterfly is a species with wing structure made up of tiny microscopic ridges also known as structural coloring. The nighthawk was fast asleep and almost completely camouflaged in the brush for it is nocturnal and hunts at night. It is so confident in its camouflage that it did not stir as we approached. After some more uphill hiking, we finally reached the top of the station.  Huge bamboo stalks surrounded the “yoga studio” overlooking the magnificent Pacific Ocean view. We snacked on plantains and re-filled our water bottles. We saw rocks covered in petroglyphs along the path –  they were carved by ancient indigenous peoples.  Near the petroglyphs, some students also had the chance to taste fresh honey produced by stinger-less bees! It was astonishingly sweet and the bees seemed fine with our intrusion. From there, we checked on Cathy’s plots which she has worked on for the past decade. The trees and the saplings had grown a significant amount in the past two years. The group encountered a mesmerizing total of 33 leafcutter ant trails (thanks Cameron!) with ants following one another, carrying foliage twice their size back to their nests.

As we walked, we started entering rainforest mostly untouched by humans. The temperature decreased as the canopy thickened. Fun fact: we all completed this whole hike in rubber rain boots, which we can tell you is a challenge, especially down a rocky, root-filled (moderately) dangerous trail and equipped with hiking gear . The good news is that we all made it down safely without injuries.

Over streams, under canopies, one of our last stops brought us to a waterfall. We are visiting during the dry season so all water sources were less active than normal. Returning back to the dorms, we were all tired from the hike, but elated to have some lunch.  We all probably sweat out our body weight, so food and water was a must.  Marionella prepared a delicious lunch for us, made up of rice, beans, lentils, cooked plantains, fresh watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe, and salad. (This arrangement is a traditional Costa Rican meal known as casado in Spanish).  Following lunch, we ventured back to the waterfall and practiced creating ecological questions.  From those questions we created hypotheses and predictions. It was surreal to have class in a jungle setting with a beautiful waterfall behind us. We all finally got some downtime where some of us went to the waterfall and others lounged in hammocks. Wrapping up the day we returned before dark and ate some more Costa Rican cuisine, and settled in for the night. Looking forward to the rest of this adventure, onwards and upwards we go. Overwhelmed with awe and under the sun, we continue our new experience.

Best,

Liam & Lia

We’re off!

We finished packing up all of our gear yesterday, and headed to the airport bright and early this morning. San Jose, here we come!

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Update: The Journey to the Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology

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Touch down in San Jose.
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We stopped for an ice cold drink along the drive to the field station.
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Welcome!
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The field station
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We stopped along the way at Crocodile Bridge for a look at these intimidating reptiles.
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The view from Crocodile Bridge.

Let the adventures begin!

Greetings! And welcome to the class blog for the Methods in Field Ecology: Costa Rica course. As the instructor, I have the privilege of adventuring to the tropical rainforest with 13 Bard students who have spent the last six weeks learning to “measure nature” in various habitats across Bard’s campus. Soon, we depart for the Firestone Center for Restoration Ecology, in Costa Rica, where students will be immersed in a new culture, a new ecosystem, and a week of asking questions like:

syllabus graphic
Figure 1. Field methods are central to conducting ecological studies, but must be understood in the context of other important components of the research process.
  • How much biomass are leaf cutter ants removing from the forest in a day?
  • How many different species of butterflies are in a riparian corridor vs old growth forest?
  • How can we estimate the population size of poison dart frogs?

Ecologists often joke that the most important field tools are duct tape, PVC, stopwatches, and ingenuity.  This may be true, but even the least technical projects require a clear question, a solid study design, reliable data management, and effective ways to visualize the results (Fig. 1). All of this is achieved more efficiently (and more enjoyably!) through collaboration.  This unique opportunity to live and work together in the tropics will bring ample challenges (did I mention the 2 km uphill hike each morning?), but also ample rewards–in the form of wildlife sightings (monkeys, toucans, sloths, oh my!), newly acquired field skills, fried plantains, poetic butterfly releases, inspiring ocean views, and oh yes, amazing coffee. Pura Vida!

Pre-trip training

The students practiced various field techniques around campus in preparation for our trip to Costa Rica.

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